Blunt, Überleben, Nora, Bus and Penthesilea – 5 exemplary spaces by the stage designer Katja Haß
Measured by current tendencies in stage design, Katja Haß fits out stages almost with opulence. For Elmar Goerden’s production of Blunt (1995), she built a gloomy, dusty room that consisted exclusively of doors. These old doors, which she forces into a narrow architecture, full of nooks and crannies, lead to an amazing paradox: doors, but no exit, instead of which are countless mysterious hiding places and hideaways where that lurks which one would like to keep hidden.
Haß sets an autonomous world on stage and formulates it down to the smallest detail. All her spaces are underlain by a concealed concept. Ground plan, materials, colours, objects – each has been thought out in relation to the others and works towards a single fundamental idea. There is nothing accidental, nothing “added on”. Her spaces are structured through and through and closed in themselves. They convey their own story, one often completely independent of the play, and could stand alone for themselves. Notwithstanding their independence, they are invariably a very individual response to the play and offer it the opportunity of responding in turn.
One might think that Haß pays homage to realism. At first glance, several of her sets appear to be mere likenesses of reality. In fact, her ideas are often inspired by photographs, some taken by her, some found in picture books. As a pupil of Erich Wonder and Anna Viebrock, she draws in the first place on the fundamentally realistic stage space, which, however, she then “bends” in a complex process of appropriation.
She generates confusions through a slight shift of angle, a nuance in the ground plan, through blind doors or stairs that lead nowhere. In this way she produces a perfect illusion – confusions included. At first glance, her stage design for Stephan Kimmig’s production of Überleben (i.e., Survival) at the Stuttgart Staatstheater looks architectural and objective, an appearance that in the course of the evening turns out to be “false”. The characters, members of a Jewish family, find themselves in a radically strange place, where other laws obtain than those to which they are accustomed. The space, which we have perceived as realistic, opens itself into associations, makes a strange and menacing impression. It stands as a metaphor for the life of the characters, a life that is shaped by destruction. The space is not architecture, but rather an “architectural inner world”.
It was at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, where Haß has worked continuously since 2000, that (among others) Stephan Kimmig’s productions of Nora and Hedda Gabler came into being. For both, she designed in the first place middle-class sitting rooms and in the second place highly neurotic spatial constellations. Whether the anonymous, unfinished prestigious house for Nora or the ambitious “blob architecture” for Hedda, the sets suggest prisons for freedom-loving women imprisoned in themselves. They radiate coldness and impersonality, tell stories about fragility and rapid decline. They are not reliable and one can orient oneself within them only with difficulty. The people who enter these spaces are compelled to comport themselves towards them – to their indwelling slant or, if one prefers, to their neuroses. Nora, thrown into a space which she wished for but which now downright threatens her, makes a strange and abandoned impression in her “doll’s house”. The warp in the floor, which at the beginning she much smiles at, becomes for her a stumbling block; doors become gateways to dread; niches, dead-ends; and the conservatory, formerly a cheerless retreat for the lonely smoker Nora, a depressing terminus.
Forlornness and morbidity
Haß is a passionate reader, and it is from books that she draws a great part of her recurrent motifs of escapism, forlornness, dream-likeness and nightmarishness. For Lukas Bärfuß’s Der Bus (i.e., The Bus), she built, far removed from the forest in which the play actually takes place, a “roof of the world”. The tent-like construction, on whose back the story about faith and violence is performed, has a morbid charm that is fed by the conflicting feelings of freedom and anxiety. Decay and destruction are leitmotifs for Haß. Her spaces are never easy or life-affirming, but rather reflect the complexity and unfathomableness of the human soul.
Looking at the development of stage design in recent years, Katja Haß certainly belongs to a rare species. If authentic materials are currently the thing, then she moulds and paints. If reality as citation or as objet trouvé is the subject, she creates a distant, poetic world. If everyone insists on fragmentariness, she perfects her sets. Contrary to all trends, she insists on illusion and epic. Her stage spaces are covered by patina, resemble a semiotic search image. The best example is her design for Penthesilea: a picture of a bunker in which, in spite of all isolation, everything appears possible – even the impossible love. In its undogmatic mingling of tangible space and dream place, the set provides the director with the opportunity to expose the stories and characters that are shown within it to multi-layered forms of contemplation.
The author was chief dramaturge at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg and is since the sesason 2009/2010 chief dramaturge and assistant director at Deutsches Theater Berlin .